She’s released six studio albums in the last 16 years, and none of them have sold fewer than half a million copies. Regardless of how you feel about Sheryl Crow’s music — and my own feelings aren’t terribly warm — in purely commercial terms, she’s one of the most important artists of the last decade and change, and whatever her own artistic merits might be, her success helped open the floodgates for other female singer/songwriters during a time when the pop landscape was more male-dominated than ever. It all started with 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club, which receives the deluxe reissue treatment from Universal this week, adding a disc of non-album tracks, B-sides, and unreleased material to the original album, plus a DVD containing every TNMC video and a new documentary.
She’s pop/rock royalty now, but in the early ’90s, Sheryl Crow was teetering on the edge of becoming a music business casualty; her greatest claim to fame was her stint as a backup vocalist on Michael Jackson’s Bad tour, and her intended debut album had been rejected by her label. Add all this to pop music’s generally jaded vibe at the time, and it isn’t hard to see how Crow could fall in with a group of ferociously talented burnouts looking for a little low-stakes jamming between dispiriting corporate gigs. Thus was born the Tuesday Night Music Club, a loose confederacy consisting of David Baerwald, Bill Bottrell, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod, and Crow’s then-boyfriend (and future cult legend), Kevin Gilbert. Crow wasn’t the best songwriter in the bunch, but she was the best singer, and by far the most easily marketable, so it also isn’t hard to see how the sessions quickly turned into woodshedding for Crow’s second pass at her solo debut.
It’s an interesting story, and one that felt good in the “alternative” early ’90s, particularly as it came attached to an album of friendly, country-tinged music with just enough disillusionment to capture the world-weariness of college freshmen. Like Hootie & the Blowfish later in the decade, Crow offered listeners musical comfort food during a time when the radio could seem like a pretty hostile environment. It wasn’t particularly exciting music, but that was part of the point; when you go from Steelheart to Nirvana in the space of a couple years, and all of a sudden everyone is wearing Doc Martens, flannel, and silly facial hair, more excitement isn’t necessarily what you’re looking for.
Crow’s complete malleability also worked in her favor. Now that we’ve watched her fashion a career out of slight musical reinventions, we know she has a unique (and very lucrative) ability to stir bits of pop, rock, folk, and country into a perfectly inoffensive gruel; with Tuesday Night Music Club, that gift enabled her to convincingly wear an accidentally trendy persona stitched together with the help of guys who had a legitimate ambivalence (or, in Baerwald’s case, something like total animosity) toward commercial success. Like punk in the ’70s, the grunge/alternative movement gained momentum partially because of anger toward the popular music of the day; Tuesday Night Music Club represented the second wave of that movement — one that responded to everything, including that anger, with a shrug. In musical terms, it’s the smartest and subtlest thing she’s ever done, and whatever your opinion of Crow as an artist, you’d be hard-pressed to deny Club‘s status as an important artifact of the ’90s.
Again, however, it isn’t a particularly exciting album. Club‘s biggest hooks surface in its dumbest song (“All I Wanna Do”) and the one where Crow sounds most like she’s trying desperately to be cooler than she really is (“Leaving Las Vegas”); the rest of the album — with the exception of “Strong Enough,” a song I refuse to believe took six people to write — is a collection of shambolic, low-key grooves that need a singer with real soul to put them over. Crow is a technically proficient singer with real power and a pleasing, slightly ragged tone, but that ain’t soul. It might have made for a soothing palate cleanser after too many spins of Pearl Jam’s Vs. when it was popular, but when was the last time you listened to Tuesday Night Music Club? When was the last time you wished there was even more of it?
Universal’s hoping it’s been awhile, and they’re also hoping you have enough nostalgia for those days to feel like adding ten more songs to the experience, including four songs from Club‘s scrapped follow-up, a passel of B-sides, a “2009 remix” of “I Shall Believe,” and Crow’s covers of “All By Myself” and “D’yer Mak’er.” All told, it plumps Club up into a 95-minute listen, plus the DVD. Your mileage, needless to say, will vary. If you think TNMC is a classic on par with The Joshua Tree or London Calling, spending $30 on all this extra stuff will make sense; otherwise, you’re likely going to see it for the fourth-quarter UMG cash grab it is. If you fall into the former camp, though, you can content yourself with the knowledge that this is the definitive version of the album — and prepare to reacquaint yourself with TNMC with some songs you know, some you may not know, and footage like the clip embedded below.